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With the kids back to the books, it's prime time to demonstrate learning needn't end in the classroom and – gasp – the process can actually be fun! There are excellent museums for kids across the U.S. to stimulate your young Einsteins or Picassos – whether you're on a quick family getaway or just looking for something fun to do at home. And you won't have to shush your little ones at these venerable institutions either. In fact, each of our editors' picks for top kid-friendly museums provide energetic educational opportunities under the guise of childlike fun, with hands-on exhibits, scavenger hunts, DJ sessions, and more – they're bound to keep the adults entertained, too.
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American Museum of Natural History, New York City
New York City's American Museum of Natural History, the world’s largest natural science museum in both size and scope, bursts at the seams with massive dinosaur skeletons, cool rocks (including a 34-ton meteorite), life-size dioramas, and even a gigantic 94-foot model of a blue whale, all bound to leave your little one feeling positively wee in comparison. Family-friendly special exhibitions, hands-on stations in the Discovery Room, and superb cosmos-centric shows at the Hayden Planetarium are just some of the additional offerings guaranteed to fascinate young and old alike at this awe-inspiring museum for kids.
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The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
Rarely does a serious art establishment “get” kids to the extent of the Art Institute of Chicago. Its impressive "adult" collection of masters like Monet, O'Keeffe, and Warhol aside, the organization also caters to children’s artistic tendencies through its Ryan Education Center (formerly the Kraft Education Center; it's since doubled in size and been relocated to the museum's new Modern Wing). This dedicated gallery-cum-workshop space holds art classes and organizes special interactive treasure hunts that make museum-going fun. Combine that with the Allerton Building's Touch Gallery - which teaches form, scale, and texture (by letting kids touch sculptures with their hands) - and the institute easily earns a mention as a great museum for kids. Tip: The Fatt Vitale Family Orientation Room, equipped with blocks, picture books, and other fun distractions, makes a good rest stop for frazzled parents, too.
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Charles M. Schulz Museum, Santa Rosa, CA
The Peanuts gang, first syndicated in comic strip form in 1950, takes on new dimensions at the Charles M. Schulz Museum, set in the cartoonist’s onetime Santa Rosa, California, home. Though the younger set may not fully appreciate some of the exhibits (like artist Christo’s delightful "Wrapped Snoopy House"), other diversions in the 27,384-square-foot space will definitely appeal. At this museum for kids, parents can count on a labyrinth shaped like Snoopy’s head, a re-creation of Schulz's studio, craft/cartooning sessions, and a theater screening documentaries and cartoons starring none other than Charlie Brown.
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The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, Indianapolis
The only museum on our list to officially focus on children’s interests, the massive Children's Museum of Indianapolis ranks as the largest institution of its kind in the world and boasts scads of exhibits spanning physical and natural sciences, history, world cultures, and the arts. Tykes tour the land of the dinosaurs in the "Dinosphere," explore modern Egypt in the "Take Me There: Egypt" gallery, and admire the stars in the planetarium. The museum's popularity (over 1 million visitors annually) proves this really is a top-tier museum for kids and when the atmosphere is right, youngsters really do love to learn.
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Experience Music Project, Seattle
Would-be rock stars (or kids who just like to make noise) should make a beeline for Seattle’s Frank Gehry-designed Experience Music Project for fantasy jam sessions and the like in a first-rate sound studio. Indeed, in the Sound Lab, youngsters can learn to DJ or play an instrument – and even record a CD to take home with them – while the On Stage experience lets them emulate starring in a live show and review their performance after the fact on a closed-circuit television (they can even have a photo taken of the "band" to be blown up into a full-size, rock star-esque poster). Other exhibits that earn the space a mention as a stellar museum for kids are the showcase of musical history through memorabilia and recorded interviews with greats like Pearl Jam member Mike McCready.
Exploratorium, San Francisco
Learning about science has never been more fun than at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, an interactive playground chock-full of exhibits that get kids up close and personal with the mysteries of Mother Nature. Curiosity is easily satisfied via on-site lab experiments that study stem cells or fruit flies under microscopes, while kids who love being grossed-out can sign up for even wackier exploits (past instances have included drinking from a toilet and dissecting a cow’s eyeball). The littlest explorers shouldn’t miss the "Tactile Dome" either: This pitch-black labyrinth will really put their sense of touch to the test. Be sure, as well, to catch the newest permanent exhibits focused on the senses and human experience: "Mind," "Listen," and "Seeing" have each served to up the spot's credibility as a top museum for kids.
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Franklin Institute Science Museum, Philadelphia
No matter how old you are, Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, one of America’s oldest and foremost science museums, is bound to entertain. Known for its 2-story-high walk-through "Giant Heart" (in place for 57 years now), the museum’s other exhibits, like "Kid Science" (which lets tykes save the planet in the name of science) and "The Train Factory" (where kids are invited to get a working 350-ton train rolling) easily guarantee an action-packed day out. The Planetarium, IMAX theater, and outstanding visiting exhibits (like ”Titanic, The Artifact Exhibit,” which showcases over 300 artifacts culled from the wreck: opens November 10) also make this museum for kids a hit every time.
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John F. Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL
Why play astronaut at nearby Walt Disney World when you can meet a real one at NASA's launch headquarters in Cape Canaveral, where daily astronaut-hosted lunches are part of the appeal? Indeed, the Kennedy Space Center has witnessed some of mankind’s most spectacular technological achievements, and while the full astronomical scope might be lost on the little ones (and even on the "big" ones), exploring a full-size replica of the Explorer space shuttle and touching a moon rock are sure to provide kids with an experience that’s truly out of this world. Even though the space shuttle program has been retired, if your timing’s right at this top museum for kids, you might still get to watch a live launch or a rocket – the next scheduled launch here is set for October 25, 2012.
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National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
Located on D.C.'s National Mall, in a cavernous building that resembles an aircraft hangar more than it does a museum, this superb ode to aviation and space flight is loaded with historic propeller planes, high-speed jets, satellites, and spacecraft that are sure to appeal to wannabe pilots of all ages. Indeed, the sky’s the limit for an informative and fun-filled experience at the National Air and Space Museum, whether it’s climbing in the cockpit for a simulated flight, handling moon rocks, or walking through a replica of an airport control tower. Equally appealing, this is one museum for kids that costs nothing at all to visit.
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National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY
Baseball fans of all ages make pilgrimages to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the country’s singular mecca to the sport in Cooperstown, New York. And, while displays of bats, mitts, and pennants belonging to legendary teams and players are often enough to enthrall kids (and grown-ups), additional offerings like the Sandlot Kids' Clubhouse, which fully immerses youngsters in the sport by allowing them to step up to the plate while learning the game’s storied history; fresh exhibits (recent additions are dedicated to Latin American ball players and to Hank Aaron); and frequent appearances by living baseball stars round out the impressive family-friendly roster at this top museum for kids.
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